Ground war theory

May 11, 1999|By Joel P. Rawson

THERE are two wars being fought in Yugoslavia. The first is a ground war, with objectives as old as war itself: Kill your enemy, drive the survivors from the land and loot and destroy their property.

Genghis Khan would understand it. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used it against the Confederacy. Adolf Hitler was one of its greatest practitioners.

The Serbian police and army have driven their fellow citizens of Albanian descent from Kosovo by terror and force. Homes are burned, businesses destroyed, funds stolen, identity papers ripped to bits and more than 600,000 people forced to flee. Reports allege atrocities: Young men culled out and shot; young women and girls raped.

In their turn, the Albanian Kosovars have fought a guerrilla war of ambush, kidnapping and murder.

This warfare is primitive in its intent and execution. We recoil from it.

The second war in Yugoslavia is a politically and scientifically sophisticated air war. Weapons are launched from a safe distance against carefully selected targets by professional military officers who never speak the word "kill," preferring "degrade." Their belief is that if they destroy enough property, the enemy will seek a diplomatic end to the war.

In some respects, the current situation parallels the air war that took place in Indochina. In North Vietnam, the United States bombed the enemy's homeland in hopes of punishing them and persuading them to see things our way. In the South, our aircraft attacked the enemy's military force, trying to blow up his tanks and trucks and kill his soldiers -- although sometimes we killed the people we had come to save.

Today, we bomb Serbian property to the north and bomb Serbian soldiers in Kosovo to the south.

But in many respects, the air wars over Vietnam and Yugoslavia differ.

The weapons have improved since the 1960s. In Vietnam, hundreds of sorties (one plane, one mission) were flown and dozens of planes and pilots were lost in the effort to destroy one bridge. Today, satellite-guided missiles and laser-directed bombs ensure that when we want to destroy a Yugoslavian bridge, it falls; when we want to shut down a TV station, it goes dark.

American losses in the Vietnam air war were stunning. According to Rene Francillon's book on Vietnam, "The War in the Air," from 1964 to 1973, the United States lost 8,588 aircraft: 5,148 to combat and 3,440 to operations. More than half -- 4,321 -- of those losses were Army helicopters shot out of the sky (2,246) or wrecked (2,075). The Army pilots fought an up-close and personal air war, and they paid the price.

The U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots went north to the enemy's homeland, and they, too, paid a price. The Air Force lost 1,737 aircraft to combat; the Navy lost 544.

In the Balkans, as of May 3, we had lost four airplanes, one to combat -- an F-117 -- and three to operations -- an Apache helicopter, an F-16 and a Harrier.

The disparity in losses can be explained by time -- one month of fighting versus eight years -- and by changes not only in weapons, but also in tactics. Today, even the pilots hunting tanks and infantry are not getting up close and personal; they fly higher than 15,000 feet to avoid anti-aircraft guns and hand-launched missiles. (The United States has deployed 23 helicopters meant to fight at low levels; it remains to be seen what will happen when they go in to fight.)

These weapons and tactics have been safe, but relatively powerless against the enemy in Kosovo. NATO reluctance to go down and fight has been pitted against the Serbs' primitive land war in Kosovo and willingness to take punishment at home. If we withdraw now, the outcome is a clear Serbian victory. But with our call to send more jets to the Balkans, we have seemingly chosen to increase the bombing of the Serbian homeland in hopes of winning a political settlement. It is a contest not of might, but of will.

Which style of warfare will win?

Neither Vietnam nor Germany surrendered to sustained bombing, and Japan gave up only after we went nuclear. Meanwhile, sending soldiers house to house has worked down through the ages from Carthage to Saigon.

History favors the primitive.

Joel P. Rawson is executive editor of the Providence (R.I.) Journal. He flew Army reconnaissance airplanes in Vietnam.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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